How the Tudors mastered musical propaganda

David Skinner on the part Queen Katherine Parr, Thomas Tallis and music played in King Henry VIII’s propaganda wars

How the Tudors mastered musical propaganda
King Henry VIII was a master of image

It is the summer of 1544 and Henry VIII is going into battle.

While he’s away, Katherine Parr, his sixth and last queen, acts as Regent. They'd been married the previous summer, just a few months before Henry went to war with Scotland, and as his campaign against the French was intensifying. But the king needs to win over the English public to his cause. 

Planning began in the early months of 1544, and by the spring the stage had been set: a splendid display of Tudor propaganda was about to take place which would involve not only the king and queen, but an archbishop and the newly admitted composer of the Chapel Royal, Thomas Tallis.

Henry wanted the people to rise up and ‘pray’ him into battle, as later that July he was to lead his armies at the Siege of Boulogne. However, Henry was deeply concerned that the traditional Latin litany and processional prayers were proving too extensive and cumbersome for the common man.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (above) – who after Henry’s death wrote the Book of Common Prayer still in use today – set about adapting and translating the Litany of Procession into English. His famous sermon ‘An Exhortation unto Prayer’ and English Litany was the result.

In his preface, Cranmer explains that his new translation ‘in the vulgar tunge’ would help in ‘styrring the people to more deuotion’ as Henry was about to embark on the ‘great and dangerous affayres of warre’.

What is less well known is that Queen Katherine Parr had also been busy with a complementary work entitled Psalms or Prayers.

Katherine provided a series of 15 paraphrases from the psalter (or Psalm ‘centos’) modelled on the earlier work of the Catholic martyr John Fisher. The themes address the trauma of war and asking God for guidance in battle. This duel effort was to pour out of the presses of the King’s Printer, Thomas Berthelet, in April and May.

All of this was heading towards a major public occasion to stir up the king’s subjects to prayer for the war effort: it was decided that Rogationtide – when Processional Litanies were observed throughout the land – would, for the first time, be conducted in English.

Rogationtide that year ran from Monday 19 May to Wednesday 21 May, leading to Ascension Thursday on the 22nd, when Henry made ample provision so Londoners might celebrate a recent victory over Scotland with flowing wine at stations throughout the city.

The focus of the following day, however, was of solemnity and prayer: a general procession with a sermon held at St Paul’s Cathedral, the traditional venue for major public observances.

It was there that, on Friday 24 May 1544, the first use of Cranmer’s English Litany was performed. It was set to music by none other than Thomas Tallis, who was also responsible for another work which must have been prepared for this occasion.

Following the dissolution of the greater monasteries in the mid to late 1530s, Tallis settled into the new foundation of Christ Church, Canterbury, where he is listed as singing man in 1541. By 1543 he was elevated to the Chapel Royal, around the time Katherine Parr became queen. There has emerged a single, but highly significant, piece of evidence to suggest that they knew one another, and indeed worked towards a common cause: they were to serve, together, as part of Henry’s propaganda machine to create a most effective mouthpiece for the king’s cause.

In 1978, three mid 16th-century music fragments were found behind plasterwork during renovations at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

The music was recognised as being a seemingly early version of Tallis’s greatest votive antiphon, the six-part Gaude gloriosa dei mater, but with unidentified English text. The themes in the fragments are very much at odds with the original devotional nature of the Latin: ‘cast them down hedlonge … for they are treatours & raybels agaynst me … let the wicked sinners returne in to hell’.

The words have recently been identified as coming from Katherine Parr’s wartime publication, Psalms or Prayers, and, more specifically her Ninth Psalm ‘agaynst ennemies’.

The fragments are a remarkable survival, and enough music is preserved to confidently reconstruct the entire work with Katherine Parr’s words. While Tallis’s Litany was composed specifically for the first uses of Cranmer’s new English liturgy, set ‘for every syllable a note’ for distinct clarity, Parr’s ‘See, Lord, and behold’ was a grand, patriotic symbol embedded in the old, established musical style of the expansive Tudor votive antiphon.

That this extraordinary work was modelled on an even earlier version of Gaude gloriosa is clear, and it is now thought that Tallis’s original dates from his arrival at Canterbury three years previous. It must have caught the ears of the king and queen, and considered the perfect vehicle for Katherine’s evocative text.

So much for the theory that Katherine Parr was the king’s nursemaid in his final years. She actually served as a highly effective PR agent.


David Skinner and Alamire will perform the first London performance of the work by Tallis and Queen Katherine Parr in over 470 years at the Tenebrae Holy Week Festival in St John’s Smith Square on Good Friday, 14 April, at 7.30pm. Tickets available here.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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